Wrestling With Work

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the potential benefits and blessings of a person’s work when it is God-directed.

My Work – My Legacy: Ecclesiastes 2:18-23.

[18]  I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, [19]  and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. [20]  So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, [21]  because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. [22]  What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? [23]  For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.  [ESV]

One has no control over what is done with one’s legacy. One has to leave one’s labor to the person who comes after, and one has no control over that person – they could be wise or foolish. Even if we choose to leave our legacy to some organization instead of a person, changes can occur in that organization that we do not know about nor would we agree with. In verse 21 the Preacher gives an example of a person who worked hard and was very successful, but at death he had to leave it to one who did not work for it. The implication is that since this person has not worked for what he receives, he may be thoroughly foolish in how he handles his inheritance. Experience and observation are key elements in the Preacher’s epistemology, and we see them at work here in his anecdote. The result is that the Preacher cannot find meaning in work or in his experiment with pleasure and the good life. Verse 22 repeats the programmatic question of 1:3 with a strong sense of nothing but pain and grief and despair as the answer. His existential experience of the tension and frustration this generates is excruciating: in verse 18 he speaks in the strongest terms of hating his labor and in verse 20 of succumbing to despair. In verse 23 he articulates the agony this question causes him – even at night he cannot find rest. Sleeplessness is a sign of the extent of just how disturbed his inner being is. His experiment with pleasure and the good life, which has included much labor, has not succeeded – all remains vanity. For the Preacher the repetitiveness of history, the end of life for all in death, and one’s lack of control over one’s legacy lead him to his conclusion that all is vanity.

Any wisdom worth its weight has to come to grips with death, the great enigma of life. The Preacher confronts us with its reality but at this stage provides no answer to the enigma. Bringing God into the picture makes all the difference. Biblically, death is a consequence of sin and the divinely imposed penalty on it. The effect of sin is that God’s image bearers forfeit their right to exist and their reason for existence – the Preacher’s great struggle. But God does not give up on His good creation. He grants His creatures a stay of execution. He holds the full force of the death penalty in abeyance. Thus He makes room for the renewal of life, for His unfolding plan of salvation, for Israel, for planting a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem, for the empty tomb, for the church, for the coming of the kingdom, and ultimately for a Paradise regained, where death will be forever banished and life in its fullness restored. For the present, however, death remains the riddle of our existence.

My Work – My Joy: Ecclesiastes 2:24-26.

[24]  There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, [25]  for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? [26]  For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.  [ESV]

Is life itself just a dead end? Are all our experiences along the way no more than polishing brass on a sinking ship? The Preacher gives three answers to these questions, and each one heralds a radical change of tone from all that he has hitherto been saying, as he talks about receiving God’s goal, gift and grace in our lives. (1) Enjoy life as God’s goal [24]. There is nothing better for a person is a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes [2:24; 3:12,22; 8:15]. It affirms that what has become a burden ought to be a great joy! The Preacher starts here with something everyone can understand: eating and drinking can be a joy. So, he quietly suggests, why take a jaundiced view of these things? Why not receive them for what they are? Why not accept them as blessings? After all, life itself is a marvelous thing. Does it not look to you as something designed to be good and to do good? He does not mention it, but did he intend to remind his readers that God had made all things good [Gen. 2:9]? Had God not repeatedly spoken of His provision of material comfort and prosperity as a blessing? He provides for us richly everything to enjoy [2 Tim. 6:17]. The point of contact with his skeptical readers is the fundamental fact that we respond to good things with enjoyment. We may therefore argue from that positive provision and pleasurable experience to the meaning and purpose of these things. Life is meant to be satisfying! (2) Enjoy life as God’s gift [24-25]. From experience, the Preacher turns to faith – the ultimate reality that interprets our experience correctly. Receiving life as a gift is impossible without receiving the Giver. This is the condition of true fulfillment, according to the Preacher. This reasonable argument rests on the incontrovertible awareness of meaninglessness in the under-the-sun world view. It is a matter of ‘no God, no goal’. The secular-materialist hangs on with grim determination to the notion that he really is going somewhere. But we must insist, against his claims: Does this creation not witness to the reality of the God who made it and reveals Himself in the Bible [Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-20]? Is life not a gift? (3) Enjoy life as God’s grace [26].God gives true wisdom and joy to those who please Him. This answers a very important question that is a stumbling block to many. On what basis does God apportion His blessings? After all, there are wide disparities in human experience and the demarcation line is not a simple one between the rich and the poor. Discontent and despair cut through both groups. God does not make all His believers rich according to the conventional materialistic standards of the day. What is significant is that He provides and transforms, so that He is glorified in the praise of His people – which includes every aspect of renewed lives. There is in this a very positive message for those who feel the icy hand of hopelessness closing in on their lives. Through a living faith in God, there is joy in the simplest and the most complex of life’s experiences.

Verse 24 starts with the better … than form which occurs four times in Ecclesiastes, here and in 3:12,22; 8:15. God is the central character in this section, whereas He is not referred to once in 2:1-23. This in itself signals that verses 24-26 move in a different direction from verses 1-23. In verse 26 the Preacher affirms the character-consequence structure that is central to Proverbs 1-9. To a person who is good in His sight God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy, and to the sinner He gives the task of gathering and amassing only to give to the person who is pleasing to God. Wisdom is different from law in its quest for God’s order in creation, but the two are inseparable and both have their origin in God; thus one may sin by breaking God’s law and by being unwise. Rather than sinners prospering and enjoying life, they suffer God’s judgment, and what they amass is given to the righteous. Thus the Preacher here affirms what he has subverted in the preceding section. In verse 23 labor yields vexation and pain, whereas in verse 26 it is a source of joy and fulfillment. Eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s labor are furthermore here positively evoked as the gift of God and resonate with the goodness of creation as it is articulated in Genesis 1 and 2, Deuteronomy and multiple other passages. Eating and drinking and enjoying one’s work are an expression of the peace that God intended for His creation and humankind in particular. It is the vision evoked with Eden in Genesis 2 and in the promises to the Israelites about the good land of Israel. Where does the Preacher get this vision from? The answer is found in remembering that the Preacher is clearly portrayed as a believer who knows the Old Testament tradition. Thus this peace perspective articulates what the Preacher knows from tradition and experience, but what he does not know is how to reconcile it with his experience and observations that lead him in the contrary direction. Hence his statement in verse 26 that this too is vanity. The Preacher wrestles with how to relate these contradictory answers to the programmatic question in 1:3.

Verses 24-26 are a wonderful and refreshing vision of life after the hedonism and despair of 2:1-23, but the challenge is how to relate these verses to what precedes. What we have here is an example of deliberate contradictory juxtaposition. Verses 24-26 articulate the orthodox wisdom perspective on life, and the Preacher would have accepted this vision of life as a believer and as an Israelite. However, his observation and experience of life seem to contradict this vision, hence his quest for where real meaning in life is to be found. He cannot deny the power of the peace perspective but finds it deeply in tension with his reason, observation, and experience. Central to his journey is the resolution of the tension between these two perspectives that threatens to tear him apart inside. How does he reconcile the tensions between the meaninglessness that he observes and the meaningful creation that he knows as a believer? In a nutshell, Ecclesiastes is about the resolution of that tension.

My Work – God’s Gift: Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.

[18]  Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. [19]  Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. [20]  For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Solomon frequently employs a ‘reverse psychology’ in his presentations of life’s challenges. You can see this at work in 5:8-17 when he talks about the emptiness of the love of money. It is as if he is a complete cynic, as if life never rises above the level of living under a cloud of meaningless toil that is going nowhere. He does not, of course, believe this is how life is bound to be. The Preacher’s reverse psychology now takes us from that ‘frowning cloud’ to the ‘bright vision’, which is in fact his personal testimony. His emphasis is vibrant with life. He commands our attention. In effect, he is saying: “Hear this; this is what you need to hear and understand.” The key word in the Preacher’s argument is the name of God which he repeats four times in these three verses. God has given us the days of our lives [18]. He has given wealth and the ability to enjoy it [19]. He gives happiness in our work [19]. God sustains His people with joy in our hearts [20]. To receive the gift for what it is presupposes believing and trusting in the Giver. The godless enjoyment of the good gifts of God’s world is an empty parody of the blessings experienced by the Lord’s people as they glory in the goodness of their heavenly Father. The Christian exults: “This is my Father’s world. He has sent Jesus to be my Savior. He has given me eternal life and I shall never perish. And He provides for me every day with His goodness. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him, all creatures here below. Praise Him above you heavenly host!” One of the great misconceptions that many, including some very sincerely committed Christians, entertain about the Christian life is the notion that it is supposed to be rather somber and sorrowful. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. The Lord turns mourning into dancing for those He saves from their sins. He calls us to rejoice in His gifts. We are promised that there is real satisfaction for us in our labor, however toilsome it may be. He rolls back the effects of man’s fall into sin – the curse of Genesis 3:17 – and redeems the whole life of His people. He sent His only-begotten Son to die an atoning, substitutionary death for the sins of every sinner that He will save for Himself. Rejoicing is the only appropriate response and ought to pervade every aspect of the Christian’s devotion to the Lord. Sometimes there will be tears, but they will be out of joy as well as grief.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In verses 2:18-23, what does the Preacher say is the wrong reason to work hard in life? Why does death fill this type of individual with despair? What is the reason God’s word gives us for working hard in life? What legacy will have eternal value?

2.         What are God’s three answers [24-26] to the pessimism and despair of verses 18-23? How can you use these answers in your own life to bring joy to your daily work?

3.         Do you ever feel the tension between all the meaninglessness of life as you observe what is happening around you and the Biblical teaching that life has meaning? This life does have a direction, a purpose, a goal; it is not just a hopeless journey to death as the Preacher observes. What solution does the Bible give for living a life of hope and joy in the midst of this  tension?

4.         What “reverse psychology” does the Preacher use in 5:18-20? What is the key word that causes the shift in focus? What is the solution to the meaninglessness of life that the Preacher is presenting to us by the use of this key word?


Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker Academic.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.

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